Interview with Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Brad Lidge
“What do you wanna do?”
Philadelphia Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz posed that
question to pitcher Brad Lidge, when they were one strike away from winning the
World Series in 2008.
The Tampa Bay Rays had a runner at second base. At the
plate, pinch hitter Eric Hinske waited. In the stands, 45,000 people screamed
and waved their rally towels frantically, nearly bursting with the almost
unbearable hope that this could be
the moment when three decades of failure would be laid to rest.
Lidge told Ruiz he was going to go with his best pitch – a
slider that starts over the plate and dives off the inside corner, in to the
left-handed hitter. Lidge visualised making the pitch, and then he delivered
it…’it’ being the pitch, the strikeout, and the Phillies’ first World Series
win for a generation.
It had been a year of change for Lidge, who was traded to
the Phillies in the off-season, going from a rebuilding Houston Astros team to
the Phillies who had made the postseason the previous year, and were looking
for the one or two pieces that could put them over the top. Lidge had been to
the World Series with Houston in 2005, only to end up on the wrong side of a
beating by the Chicago White Sox. Coming to Philadelphia he was joining a
successful and apparently close-knit squad that seemed to enjoy playing
together, having what many termed good ‘chemistry’.
Much is said and written about team ‘chemistry’, though
little of that seems to come from the players themselves. When I asked Lidge
about the impact of chemistry on a team, he said, “When a team is winning,
people will say they have great chemistry; when they are losing, people say
they have bad chemistry, even if it’s not true”. He then paused before adding
that one of the good things about this Phillies team is that “We hold eachother
accountable”. Perhaps then it is less about everyone being good buddies, and
more about everyone buying into a team-first ethic.
Lidge went 48 for 48 in save opportunities in 2008 – his
first season with the Phillies, having arguably the best season in history for
a relief pitcher, culminating as it did in the World Series win. However, the
effects of off-season surgery on his right knee lingered into and through the
following 2009 season, which led to him blowing a league-high 11 of 42 save
opportunities as he was unable to properly push off his right leg. “It became a
difficult year”, Lidge said, “it was a struggle trying to change things to keep
myself on the field”.
Changing how you throw is usually a recipe for disaster for
a pitcher, as the mechanics of pitching motions are so finely tuned as to leave
only a tiny margin for error. For Lidge, it can make the difference between one
of his sliders diving off the plate so hard it is borderline unhittable, and
having it hang over the strike zone with a ‘Hit me’ sign on it. 2009 was for
him the year of the hanging slider – nothing seemed to go right.
“There are two ways of dealing with it”, he said, “you can
say, ‘I need to go on the DL [Disabled List]'”, or ‘I can try and help my
team'”, giving voice to the old-school mentality shared by a number of his
colleagues. Phillies’ second baseman Chase Utley recently said, “an injury is something that
keeps you off the field” – i.e. he refuses to acknowledge pain – however
acute – as an injury if he is still physically capable of playing.
The Phillies still made it to the World Series last season,
only to come up short as Alex Rodriguez, one of the most gifted people ever to
swing a baseball bat, finally broke out of his postseason slump to lead the
Yankees to victory in six games. When I asked Lidge who was the best hitter
he’s ever faced, it was A-Rod’s name that came up first. “When I’ve pitched to
him I’ve made mistakes”, Lidge said, “He gets you out of your gameplan”.
It takes the most severe pressure to bring the
adrenaline-fuelled best out of sportsmen such as Lidge, and the role of a closer
has a uniquely nerve-jangling quality to it. The destiny of a team rests, 40-50
times a year, on the shoulders of one man’s ability to get three outs in the
ninth inning. Thriving on that environment, Lidge, like many other closers,
tends to pitch less effectively when he is not in a save situation, and
acknowledged that, “Your body is able to do things a little better” when the
adrenaline is pumping.
If the performance itself needs your body to be tricked into
thinking you are in a life-threatening situation, the other side of the coin is
that long-term success as a closer requires the opposite response whenever you
are not on the mound. It requires a phlegmatism that contradicts everything you
have to tell yourself to succeed in the moment.
This is where Lidge says that his faith in God enables him,
in the down times, to be reminded that baseball “is just a game – there are
more important things”. It is that ability to “put baseball in perspective”
which helps keep him on an even keel. Any closer needs that, and Lidge has
needed it more than most going through seasons of such contrasting fortunes as
he has in the last few years.
Perspective – and a wicked slider – has kept Brad Lidge at
the top of his profession for six years.
“If you can meet with triumph and
disaster and treat those two imposters just the same…
is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a
Man my son!”
(from ‘If’, by Kipling)